The Relatable Robert Lowell

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Robert Lowell: New Selected Poems
Edited by Katie Peterson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017, 243 pages, $18.00

As we celebrate what would have been Robert Lowell’s centennial, we can rejoice in Katie Peterson’s recent publication, Robert Lowell: New Selected Poems (2017), a compilation that succeeds in pumping lifeblood back into Lowell’s literary reputation. Deserving a spot alongside, rather than in place of, editors Frank Bidart and David Gewanter’s Robert Lowell: Selected Poems (2007), Peterson’s volume serves a notably different function. Whereas Bidart and Gewanter’s book is the scholar’s definitive collection, Peterson’s Selected is engineered to appeal to a contemporary audience, specifically to Lowell’s more casual fans and to those hardly acquainted with Lowell at all. While Bidart and Gewanter’s volume is an expansion of the Selected Poems Lowell himself published in 1976 and revised before his death in 1977, and therefore follows Lowell’s original intent for the work while also representing the full gamut of his career, Peterson’s selection—roughly half the size of Lowell’s own book and less than half the size of Bidart and Gewanter’s—is instead crafted with a particular purpose in mind. Quick to admit, “I made no attempt to be comprehensive,” Peterson aims instead to present the rich, white, male, “privileged,” Boston aristocrat—the Lord Byron of his century—as an everyman, a relatable Lowell, the people’s Lowell.1

Peterson, an award-winning poet herself, is aware that ardent poetry devotees in today’s age are few and far in between, and therefore New Selected can be seen as an admirable attempt to broaden readership for Lowell’s poems. Her introduction makes it abundantly clear that this selection is not only for elite poetry buffs in their ivory towers, but also for the “many individuals with many different kinds of lives [who] aspire to be poets,” for the somewhat nascent poetry lovers who need Peterson’s reassurance that she too was once like Elizabeth Bishop’s students, finding Lowell “very difficult.” Peterson even acknowledges that her readers may only know Lowell’s reputation as a tortured manic depressive, compelled to spill his innermost secrets in verse; “If you knew Lowell before picking up this [book],” she assumes, “you probably knew him from these lines: ‘I myself am hell; nobody’s here,” a quotation that embodies a reductive, though now common, impression of Lowell as a poet. Truly a considerate educator, perhaps with her own students in mind, Peterson encourages her readers, “you don’t need to know what Modernism did to poetry,” before succinctly defining Modernism’s role in order to provide context for the impressive scope of Lowell’s work.2 She essentially invites her readers to come as they are—no experience necessary. Peterson’s desire to pique the casual reader’s interest is evident in her introduction, but also informs her selections. For example, from Lowell’s History, Peterson includes the poems “Sylvia Plath,” “T. S. Eliot,” “Ezra Pound,” and “For Elizabeth Bishop” in her New Selected, whereas Lowell did not include them in his final Selected volume, thereby constructing a different impression than the one Lowell himself tried to create. By including these poems, Peterson establishes Lowell among this circle of highly canonized writers while also evoking a sense of familiarity and therefore comfort for her wider audience, those more likely to recognize the names of Eliot and Pound, for instance, than that of Sir Thomas More.

In addition to being sensitive to her readers’ level of exposure (or lack thereof) to Lowell’s work, Peterson is not hesitant to imply the particular sensibility and worldview of her readers. The audience Peterson envisions is one, in her words, interested in “getting ‘woke,’” one likely concerned with “climate change,” and one equally anxious about “the inauguration of Donald Trump.” Peterson encourages these politically conscious would-be activists to “check Facebook” as a measure of how much the “great social changes” of Lowell’s time are still of utmost importance to us, those living in the twenty-first century. Peterson’s audience is one who, when being introduced to Ezra Pound, should in the same breath be told that he was “Modernism’s genius” and that he “spent years confined to a mental institution after espousing Fascist politics during the Second World War.” It’s an audience who is sick and tired of reading history that is shaped solely by victors, an audience with whom Peterson associates herself:

we like to use the word “privilege” to describe people such as Lowell—white, male, funded, educated, carriers of social position and family name …. in American poetry, we like not liking people like that, and we distrust privilege as we would a mask.3

And so, by confronting a potential roadblock for Lowell’s legacy in an era where “privileged” authors are often distastefully labeled as inauthentic, Peterson strives to lift that mask to reveal a poet who detested his own privilege, who was plagued by the struggle just to survive another day in this mad world, in his own manic depressive brain. Peterson’s Lowell is not the esoteric genius who almost single-handedly changed poetry at mid-twentieth-century; he, instead, is just like us, with the same hopes and fears. Peterson implores her audience—who may still be raising their collective cynical eyebrow—to appreciate how Lowell’s “imagination enabled him to create work that still matters to us.”4 Peterson argues that behind the endless “thicket of allusions,” the tongue twisting, sometimes seemingly impenetrable diction, Lowell’s poetry is motivated by our shared and very human fear of death, of our fragile mortality. Ultimately, according to Peterson, Lowell’s poetry is informed and shaped by his preoccupation with the “perishability of life.”5

With each inclusion or omission, Peterson remains devoted to portraying a relatable Lowell, the poet who gives us “whole days lived through, entire days survived” and “days rather than moments, hangovers (and their flashbacks) rather than lunch hours, divorces (and their entanglements) rather than engagements, the morning after rather than the party.”6 In other words, Peterson highlights where Lowell gives us life, in all of its realistic grittiness and occasional monotony. To continue building the narrative of a writer who is relevant to a twenty-first century audience, Peterson often chooses to omit the less accessible, more historical and prophetic poems in favor of the personal ones, those which help readers to see Lowell’s “day” passing. From the Pulitzer Prize winning Lord Weary’s Castle, for example, Peterson does not include many historical poems such as “The Exile’s Return,” which describes “Where the dynamited walnut tree / Shadows a squat, old, wind-torn gate and cows / The Yankee commandant,” nor “Holy Innocents,” with its mention of “King Herod shrieking vengeance at the curled / Up knees of Jesus choking in the air.”7 Instead, she selects “New Year’s Day,” a poem in which, according to Peterson, “the day and the fact of its running out form all the drama the poem needs,” and “Buttercups,” which presents a bullied, empathy-inducing narrator, who describes how “A levelled broom-pole butt / Was pushed into my thin / And up-turned chin.”8 Peterson repeats this pattern in her selections from For the Union Dead, choosing to eliminate poems such as “The Neo-Classical Urn,” “Florence,” and “Buenos Aires,” all included in Lowell’s Selected, in favor of “The Lesson,” “Those Before Us,” and “Caligula,” which begins with a narrator’s regretful self-recognition in the figure of Caligula, the actual source of Lowell’s lifelong nickname, “Cal”:

My namesake, Little Boots, Caligula, you disappoint me. Tell me what I saw to make me like you when we met at school? I took your name—poor odd-ball, poor spoiled fool, my prince, young innocent and bowdlerized! Your true face sneers at me, mean, thin, agonized, the rusty Roman medal where I see my lowest depths of possibility.9

The syntax of line four creates purposeful ambiguity as to whether the “poor odd-ball, poor spoiled fool” is Caligula or the narrator himself. Readers are meant to see the two as one, at least until the narrator declares “my prince” in the next line, clarifying the object of his epithets. Although Peterson makes the following observation about the poem “Robert Frost,” one could easily imagine her asserting the same for “Caligula”: the poem is “a displaced self-portrait in dialogue, a reckoning with how poetic privilege, prestige, renown, and the rest don’t translate into the kind of capital that builds life.” By repeating the pattern of minimizing the obscure and maximizing the relatable, like “Caligula,” throughout New Selected, Peterson achieves her goal of capturing “this sense of living in time in a human-scale,” a characteristic that can be associated with many of Lowell’s greatest works.10 It is this very element after all—capturing life in poetry—that Lowell and his close circle of artistic contemporaries strived to achieve starting in the 1940s. In a letter penned in 1945, for example, Randall Jarrell encouraged Lowell to “start [his poems] from a real point of departure in contemporary real life.”11 Therefore Peterson’s emphasis on Lowell as “the great poet of the human day,” a defining tenet of Lowell’s Life Studies and later books, is a highly valuable lens through which to explore his body of work.

Another important contribution to Lowell studies, Peterson’s volume joins the work of recent critics to debunk the widely purported breakthrough narrative, an oversimplified theory that upholds Lowell as its prototype. Through the lens of this narrative, Lowell, a twentieth-century American poet had a career cut in two distinct halves: first, the pre-Life Studies works, replete with identifiable influences of formalism, modernism, and New Criticism; and second, works including Life Studies and after, which eschew all previous influences in favor of a raw, confessional mode.12 The basic premises of these canonical arguments are to some extent true; the features of Lowell’s early works do indeed include tight forms with classical characteristics, and—as early as the 1940s, as is indicated by his correspondence with authors such as Jarrell—Lowell did work towards creating more conversational verse with a less rigid aesthetic. However, it is problematic to conceptualize the arc of Lowell’s work as merely a chronological shift between mutually exclusive binaries: closed to open, formal to free, rigorous to loose, objective to subjective, and “cooked” to “raw,” to employ Lowell’s words. Critics who promote this theory tend to ignore that Life Studies is the furthest point in the swing of the pendulum on Lowell’s line of “closed” to “open.” They fail to see, as Bidart correctly asserts in his foreword to his Selected, that Lowell is a “transgressive artist—his art again and again broke taboos, both thematic and formal,” including the over a dozen books that follow Life Studies.13

Stripped of nuance (and accuracy), the breakthrough narrative works primarily to fit Lowell, and other poets like him, into a neat category—a task Bidart scoffs at openly, labeling Lowell “the poet of the irremediable.”14 Like Bidart, Peterson informs readers that, while Life Studies may be “the one collection of Lowell’s that twenty-first-century readers have heard of,” Lowell “refused to brand his patent with repetition,” and further clarifies that “his subsequent books each attempt something new,” therefore more accurately depicting Lowell’s career and all he achieved. Peterson emphasizes, “Whoever Robert Lowell really was, his poems remember how many times he changed who he was.”15 The structure of Peterson’s book gratifyingly mirrors her stance, as the poems up to and including Life Studies make up the first 92 pages, but the works that follow add another 142 pages that reflect the breadth and scope of Lowell’s multi-faceted, irremediable career. Ever the transgressive artist, Lowell admits the following in an interview with Frederick Seidel late in his life:

there’s another point about this mysterious business of prose and poetry, form and content, and the reasons for breaking forms. I don’t think there’s any very satisfactory answer. I seesaw back and forth between something highly metrical and something highly free; there isn’t any one way to write.16

One may easily see where Lowell “seesaws” between the freer forms that mark his influential Life Studies and the more conventional forms, such as the fourteen-line sonnet structure to which he adheres throughout Notebook 1967-68 (1970); History; For Lizzie and Harriet; and The Dolphin (all 1973, The Dolphin Lowell’s second Pulitzer Prize-winner). A quick skim of Lowell’s later poems reveals that he never fully returned to his pre-Life Studies style, but instead, as Peterson explains, continued a search for authenticity in whatever form seemed appropriate for the content, in “the language of the day of the poem,” whether that was highly metrical or highly free.

Within this carefully curated volume, Peterson succeeds in demonstrating the metrical arc of Lowell’s career and achieves her clearly articulated goal to “offer” readers the Robert Lowell who is concerned with life’s “twinned quality of fragility and repetition, as framed by the structured evanescence of daily consciousness.” Indeed, after reading this book from cover to cover, “you can see him better as he sees himself—as a skunk,” mired in the troubles of his everyday existence.17 However, especially in light of the “woke” audience to whom Peterson so wholeheartedly appeals, I am somewhat concerned that newer readers of Lowell, who perhaps only read Peterson’s book, will miss out on the other Lowell, the visionary, prolific Lowell who speaks not only of the “day,” but who also attempts to speak universally for all of mankind. In a sense, Peterson is stripping away Lowell’s mask only to create a new one.

While Peterson concedes that Lowell “heard and felt a world much larger than his one particular life,” she does not reveal this Lowell whom we Lowell-enthusiasts have come to revere.18 In fact, what she does include and conclude in this volume, due to its singular focus on daily consciousness, misrepresents the role of “the present” in Lowell’s works. Bidart gets it right by explaining that for Lowell, “any response that is moral must be made in the full light of a landscape haunted by the failure of our earlier desires, hopes, ambitions. Therefore huge energy and invention are spent on giving us, showing us what the present holds.”19 Bidart recognizes that in Lowell’s portrayal of the “present,” there is always the past—the national, regional, and personal past—that informs both the present and the narrator’s response to it. Peterson, on the other hand, by focusing most heavily on the elements of Lowell’s personal poems that make him relatable, comes to the conclusion that Lowell is “so deeply in the present tense” that it “makes his poems complicated sometimes, jumpy sometimes, nervous.” She even goes so far to say that Lowell’s perspective “leaves one very much stranded in the present.”20 While this may be true for a few of Lowell’s poems, the description is not an apt generalization for the majority of Lowell’s work, which is largely connected to the past and future. Still, however, Peterson’s approach is valuable for furthering the conversation on Lowell’s work. She tempers her observation of Lowell being lost in the now by defining Lowell’s “present” as “facing reality,” something Lowell continually attempted in all his works. Lowell’s reality, however, is more far-reaching—in time and imagination—than Peterson’s volume suggests.

Peterson’s slice of Lowell is vivid, poignant, and critical for demonstrating why Lowell’s works are still relevant for contemporary, everyday readers, but it tends to overshadow the equally important prophetic Lowell who spoke with such precision and vehemence about the human condition. Peterson admits that she originally “wanted to read poetry of the present and the future, not the past,” and, it seems, that is what she continued to do. After realizing that the present and future have always been landmarks of Lowell’s poems, she focuses almost exclusively on those, leaving Lowell’s integration of the past to Bidart and Gewanter. To grasp the full magnitude of Lowell’s achievements, however, it is important also to honor the role of the past in Lowell’s work. Peterson misleadingly asserts that Lowell “experiences knowledge, like the passage of time, as something withstood rather than possessed,” as if he is a passive receiver of both knowledge and time, distracted by a tunnel-visioned focus on the present.21 Again, while this portrayal may be suitable for the Lowell characterized by Peterson’s volume, studying the corpus of Lowell’s work—from his poetry to his nonfiction essays, and even his letters and interviews—contradicts this vision of the poet as a passive bystander.

Yes, Lowell dug deeply into his treasure trove of experiences in order to produce some deeply personal and relatable works, but he also, very actively, took part in commenting on and shaping the history of his nation. While Lowell early on adopted a fixation on history from his days of studying with Allen Tate and the Fugitives, the former jailed conscientious objector to World War II became increasingly outspoken on his political beliefs over the course of his life, whether he was speaking at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace (1949), the Boston Arts Festival (1960)—at which he read his highly political poem, “For the Union Dead”—or at the Library of Congress, where he delivered a short speech on the Gettysburg Address (1964). He even drew additional artists to his side when he declined President Lyndon B. Johnson’s invitation to the White House Festival of Arts as an act of protest against the president’s policy on Vietnam. In a public letter to President Johnson that was signed by eighteen other influential writers, Lowell stated, “every serious artist knows that he cannot enjoy public celebration without making subtle public commitments.”22 Different from the everyman painted by Peterson, Lowell knew that his public life was deeply connected to his role as an artist—that neither his actions nor his poetry could stand in a vacuum, that he had the power to affect his readers’ cultural and political views. Lowell’s recognition, at least in part, stemmed from an acknowledgement of his place of “privilege” as a member of America’s greatest literary family. Though Peterson demonizes Lowell’s position of privilege, it is important to realize that Lowell understood that his status came with responsibilities—responsibilities of which he was well aware. In addition to the introspective, contemplative artist that Peterson champions, Lowell was also driven by a need to address his readers on larger issues of humanity.

In terms of content, by integrating history and politics into his poetry he encourages readers to foster the development of selfhood, of individual identity, by identifying their place in the world. As for aesthetics, though his writing style remained fluid throughout his career, the aesthetic changes he began to make at mid-century were motivated by a greater desire to communicate directly with his reader on matters of selfhood and identity. The loosening of his forms; preference for the concrete over the abstract; the attempt to infuse life into poetry by creating authentic characters, rhythms of speech, and conversational diction; and his partiality for narrative over lyric poems—were successful ways to establish a colloquy with his audience, to address the national and global events of the second half of the twentieth-century while directing readers’ attention towards the important work of self-reflection. Robert Penn Warren, one of those influential authors to sign that public letter to President Johnson and a close friend of Lowell’s, observed: “A society with no sense of the past, with no sense of the human role as significant, not merely in experiencing history but in creating it, can have no sense of destiny,” a statement that Lowell—on many occasions both in public and private—often echoed.23 In light of Lowell’s active participation in shaping history, while it is important to see beyond Lowell’s “privilege” and its implications, it is equally important to recognize those things in the larger scale of the historical and global. Peterson’s chosen emphasis reveals a common trend today: sometimes in the pursuit of being relevant and “woke,” it is easy to fall into the trap of losing sight of the larger context.

One cannot fault Peterson for crafting a convincing, enchanting narrative of the relatable Lowell. With a poet’s sensibility, her volume truly succeeds in every goal she sets in her introduction. I would only recommend that, while enjoying Peterson’s selection, readers linger on some of the more representative poems of the prophetic Lowell that are included, such as “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” “Where the Rainbow Ends,” “For the Union Dead,” “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” “History,” and “Mermaid.” And I would also hope that Peterson’s volume serves as a gateway for readers to continue their studies of Lowell, starting, perhaps with Bidart’s introduction to Robert Lowell: Collected Poems. Here, Bidart highlights the public element of Lowell’s work that remains in the shadows of Peterson’s text. In particular, he invokes “For the Union Dead,” one of Lowell’s most anthologized poems, a poem that “confidently lays claim to the territory of large public speech before a common history.”24 If by highlighting “The Day,” “Suburban Surf,” and “Skunk Hour,” Peterson emphasizes Lowell and his “day passing,” a look at “For the Union Dead” demonstrates how Lowell also powerfully intermingles the personal, historical, and prophetic, thereby transcending barriers of time, nation, race, and socioeconomic status.

Written to be presented at the Boston Arts Festival, “For the Union Dead” is meant to be read aloud, intended to be an accessible dialogue with Lowell’s audience. His line lengths seem determined by rhythms of speech and breath; we can hear how Lowell would have delivered this poem, where he would have paused, where his pace would have quickened. Though structured into quatrains, the blend of short and long lines is tied together by alliteration and assonance rather than strict meter and rhyme. Furthermore, to address the ills of modern American society as a whole, Lowell uses the historical backdrop of Colonel Shaw, a white leader of the first black battalion of the Civil War who led a boycott of all wages when he learned that black soldiers received less pay than whites. Lowell meditates on St. Gaudens’ monument of Shaw, a structure that “sticks like a fishbone / in the city’s throat,” figuratively choking those who would scorn the colonel’s efforts towards racial equality. Lowell takes this position further by ventriloquizing Shaw’s father, who:

… wanted no monument except the ditch, where his son’s body was thrown and lost with his “niggers.”25

By putting the word “niggers” in Shaw’s father’s mouth, Lowell indicates that the hatred behind that word is endemic to the Boston of his day and to America generally. Incompatible with Peterson’s description of Lowell’s poetry as “complicated,” “jumpy,” and “nervous,” Lowell flawlessly combines this personal anecdote of the old South Boston Aquarium with the larger resonating Christian symbols and imagery that connects with his American audience by drawing Colonel Shaw as a Christ figure. As Shaw’s “body was thrown / and lost with his ‘niggers,’” Christ’s body was also thrown in an unmarked tomb after dying nearby society’s undesirables, each hero scorned by his respective community. Lowell’s prophetic analogy concludes that Boston’s people no longer appreciate the sacrifice of Colonel Shaw nor of Christ. He continues,

The ditch is nearer. There are no statues for the last war here; on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the “Rock of Ages” ……………. that survived the blast.26

Both Boston and the doomed cities in the book of Revelation traded their God for wealth and material progress, and this “ditch” of oblivion is “nearer” for those who no longer honor the soldiers but instead have found a material substitute for their praise. The inter-linear assonance of “Boylston” and “boiling” implies that Boylston Street is every bit as threatened by the bomb as Hiroshima was. Furthermore, in describing the Mosler Safe advertisement, Lowell invokes the biblical language, “Rock of Ages,” ironically giving money the sanctity of a religious icon. The apocalypse seems imminent for a society that would use the deaths of eighty-thousand people for the advancement of commercialism, a symptom—as Lowell saw it—of a society that was obsessed with the present, resulting in blindness to the past and future. Contrary to Peterson’s depiction of Lowell’s myopic fascination on the present, he was well aware of the danger of losing sight of the past and future, for himself and for society as a whole.

And so as we reflect on what would have been Lowell’s one-hundredth year, it is my hope that Peterson’s worthwhile volume will continue to draw more readership for this brilliant poet, a writer who is equally successful at capturing and expressing the present—the relatable toils of everyday life—while also drawing on the past to pose, and sometimes answer, the difficult and enduring metaphysical questions of humankind.

1 Katie Peterson, ed., Robert Lowell: New Selected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), xiv, xix.
2 Ibid., ix, x, xxi, xi.
3 Ibid., xi, xix.
4 Ibid., xxii.
5 Ibid., xi.
6 Ibid., xiii.
7 Lines 13-15, 9-10.
8 Peterson, ed., xii, lines 7-9.
9 Lines 1-8.
10 Peterson, ed., xx, xiv.
11 Mary Jarrell, ed., Randall Jarrell’s Letters (University of Virginia Press, 2002), 139.
12 The breakthrough narrative theory is applied to Lowell’s career in the following works, for example: James Longenbach, Modern Poetry After Modernism; James E. B. Breslin, From Modern to Contemporary; David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry; and Sandra M. Gilbert, “Mephistophilis in Maine.”
13 Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, eds., Robert Lowell Selected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), xiii.
14 Ibid., xiv.
15 Peterson, ed., ix, xviii.
16 Frederick Seidel, “An Interview with Robert Lowell,” in Robert Lowell: A Portrait of the Artist in His Time, eds. Michael London and Robert Boyers (New York: David Lewis Publisher, Inc., 1970), 269.
17 Peterson, ed., xi, xxii.
18 Ibid., xv.
19 Bidart and Gewanter, eds., xiv.
20 Peterson, ed., xvi, xix.
21 Ibid., x, xxi.
22 Robert Lowell, “To President Lyndon Johnson,” in Robert Lowell: Collected Prose, ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar/Straus/Giroux, 1987), 371.
23 Robert Penn Warren, Democracy and Poetry (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1975), 56.
24 Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, eds., Robert Lowell: Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), xv.
25 Lines 49-52.
26 Lines 53-58.